Just before the High Holy Days, a panic seizes many Jews. Those who rarely, if ever, step foot in synagogue the rest of the year feel compelled to attend worship on the Days of Awe. They come despite knowing that when they do, they will find the services uninspiring and boring, totally disconnected from the real world or their real lives. The banality and meaninglessness of it all confirms to many why they reject Jewish worship and synagogue life the remainder of the year. They leave as alienated from Judaism as they were before they came, if not more.
Abigail Pogrebin recently diagnosed this phenomenon in an essay for Tablet Magazine, “High Holiday Services Are Boring. Here’s How We Can Fix Them.” Pogrebin observes that at most synagogues, most of the time, “High Holiday services are a slog.” Congregants are bored and listless for many hours of a monotonous and hollow worship experience.
Pogrebin places much of the blame for this state of affairs on rabbis. Rabbis, Pogrebin argues, “guide their flocks through the long hours of often-stilted liturgy without explaining what’s being recited, how it’s relevant, or where a segment begins or ends.”
I understand this perspective, but think it only tells part of the story.
True, there are rabbis out there who are perfectly content to sleepwalk through the holidays. But that is far from the norm. Nearly every rabbi, cantor, Jewish educator, and synagogue staff person I know works for months diligently preparing for High Holy Day services, thinking of new ways to make the experience more inspiring, dynamic, engaging, and relevant. We know that since most American Jews only come to synagogue on the High Holy Days, these days afford us an opportunity to access thousands of people we would not otherwise get to reach during the rest of the year.
While many of us miss the mark, and need to work harder to produce more exciting and relevant experiences, most of us try our very best to inspire our congregations.
The other part of the story, though, one Pogrebin and others neglect to emphasize, is that many of us go to synagogue unreasonably expecting inspiration without perspiration. Like most things in life, we get out what we put in, and so our own preparation is crucial to discovering value in the High Holy Days.
One way of transforming your High Holy Day experience is by brushing up on your Hebrew. Those who take the time to learn how to read, speak, and understand Hebrew are likely to find Jewish services more valuable than those who do not. Sure, a rabbi can spoon-feed you snippets of meaning. You can read the (frequently awkward) English translations. You can allow your cantor to recite the words for you. But nothing compares to actually being able to comprehend the beauty and majesty of the prayer book’s words in their – and your people’s – original tongue.
Additionally, the traditional prayers would not seem so alien, and consequently so alienating, if you attended services during the rest of the year. Indeed, most High Holy Day prayers, or at least the structure of services, are identical to virtually every other Shabbat and holiday service. Just as a well-known route feels shorter than one we are learning for the first time, and watching a baseball game is more absorbing if you are familiar with the facts and figures, regularly attending synagogue makes High Holy Day services feel more brisk and engaging.
Speaking of which, if you came to synagogue more regularly, you would find that the awe and majesty of the High Holy Days, which many find daunting, occurs in a broader context. Their solemnity is designed to be a counter-point to the intimate joy of Sukkot, for example, and the raucous celebrations of Simhat Torah and Purim. Participating in the fullness of the Jewish calendar cycle mimics and inspires living deeply in the fullness of our own lives, which always include the polarities of joy and sorrow; celebration, loss and longing.
It reminds me of the story of the Jew who goes to his rabbi and says, “Rabbi, I’m done with Judaism. I come every year on the High Holy Days and find Judaism to be too somber and depressing.” The rabbi responds, “That’s because you’re going to shul on the wrong days! Come on Simhat Torah and Purim, and you’ll see what Judaism is really about.” So the Jew takes the rabbi’s advice, and a year later, comes back and says, “Rabbi, I did what you told me. And you’re right. Judaism can be a lot of fun. But I’ve still decided it’s not for me. It’s just not serious enough!”
Similarly, with a little time devoted to Jewish study the rest of the year, you will be better able to unlock subtle and profound wisdom from the High Holy Day experience – and, I would argue, your life in general.
While rabbis and Jewish professionals have a responsibility to make the High Holy Days meaningful, the true power lies in each of us to discover the beauty and inspiration of these days. Now that the Days of Awe are over, it’s the perfect time to take on this challenge. I promise I’ll do my part if you do yours.
Rabbi Michael Knopf, a Rabbi Without Borders, is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Facebook.